Is Daraa about to become another of Assad's atrocities?
It's with characteristic savagery that the Assad regime, bolstered by Iranian forces, attempts to finally conquer Daraa, the area considered by many to be the birthplace of Syria's 11-year-old revolution.
Unlike other areas of Syria liberated by the rebels only to be militarily conquered by Assad, Iran and Russia, Daraa was to be different. Russia, sensing an opportunity to become the major hegemonic power in the Middle East, decided that liberated Daraa would be spared the typical brutality that had been visited upon other rebel-held areas it had helped the Assad regime to conquer.
But in contrast to the role of Russia as the imperialistic pacifier of the rebellious people, the ceasefire deal in Daraa was supposed to showcase its other role - its role as the coloniser; as capable of providing 'reconciliation' and stability as it was of destruction. And so Russia thought of its grand colonial vision of 'reconstruction', which really meant Russia becoming the imperialist suzerain over what's left of Syria.
In Russia's vision for Syria, the financial and geopolitical exploitation of the country for decades to come provides it with all kinds of money-spinning ventures bringing in investment from Russia's allies, and the ever-more Assad-friendly Gulf states and Arab League. This in turn could prompt ideological allies among the EU and western world to get in on the 'scramble for Syria' somewhere along the way.
"The Daraa deal was supposed to, in the face of the US retreat, announce that Russia was now the main guarantor of stability in the region"
But underpinning all of this, was proving to the region and the world that there was stability in Syria - Israel would ramp up attacks on Iranian forces close to its border, while Jordan wants to avoid more refugees adding to the 700,000 Syrians it already hosts, or the destabilisation of its southern border. The Daraa deal was supposed to, in the face of the US retreat, announce that Russia was now the main guarantor of stability in the region.
That's why Russia did not allow the same genocidal fate of Aleppo and Homs to befall Daraa when the pro-regime forces looked to conquer it in 2018. It's now clear to everyone that Russia is the guarantor of very little in Syria, and that the foundations of the deal were always built of sand. Assad-Iran only grudgingly supported it, with the expectation that the ceasefire was merely a means to pave the way for their total conquest of Daraa.
Under the 2018 deal, the province was to be split in two: the eastern side, fully occupied by the Assad regime, and the western side, including Daraa City, was to be put under semi-autonomous control of rebel forces and civilian revolutionary forces, forming elected Central Committees representing different areas of the semi-autonomous zone.
Heavy shelling of Daraa al-Balad by the Assad regime has resumed. The neighborhood is full of civilians https://t.co/pkuQR8SsdK— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) August 4, 2021
The regime would take over the running of social provisions, and the rebels would hand over heavy weaponry and be incorporated into the Russian-created 'Fifth Corps' of the Syrian Arab Army, which would work with Russia to police the area, denying Assad and Iran any military access.
Since the deal was struck, Assad has probed for ways to tear it apart. With economic collapse in Assad's kleptocratic rump state putting Syrians at threat of mass starvation, Daraa has become a natural hotbed of resistance and protest. The fact it operates with elected central committees and with essential autonomy has made it antithetical to the regime, especially if it provides an incentive to other suffering Syrians.
When the autonomous province decided to boycott the absurd fixed presidential election earlier this year that saw the Syrian dictator returned to power with 95% of the vote, Assad began a brutal siege on Daraa.
"Since the deal was struck, Assad has probed for ways to tear it apart"
The siege then turned into an all-out offensive, with Assad shelling civilian areas, leading to over 90 deaths, including women and children. Eighty percent of the population have been 'evacuated', while Daraa al-Balad, the name for the southern part of Daraa city, is now completely besieged and its residents face starvation.
To anyone who has paid attention to Syria's civil war, these genocidal tactics are all too familiar. But so far, they're missing the Russian ingredient that could be decisive. The rebels have managed to put up fierce resistance and have on many occasions got the better of the regime - without Russian airpower, regime forces remain vulnerable.
Russia's attempts to create what we're supposed to believe could be a lasting ceasefire within a ceasefire would be comical were it not for the scale of the tragedy at stake. Though Russian intervention assured Assad's military success, in reality, Russia finds itself increasingly overstretched in the country; it has not carved stability out of Assad's parochial ultra-corrupt rump state and Iran's often quite divergent interests.
Iran rules on the ground and has the most control over Assad, given many of its Revolutionary Guard forces and proxy militias give the regime much needed manpower. As we've seen during this conflict in Daraa, Iran is actively undermining Russian 'peace' negotiations with the central committees, indicating it wants to prompt a total conquest of the region.
It could be that Russia concedes and decides there is more to be gained from the destruction of Daraa than there is to allow it to remain alive in peace.
Or it could be that Russia secures another fragile 'peace', but for how long? The conditions that led to the confrontation aren't simply going to disappear. The Assad regime isn't suddenly going to become a force for peace, and the people of Daraa are not going to willingly surrender their liberty.
Though the world ought to care about the people of Daraa, the reality is that their fate lies in the hands of forces that have pursued a war of extermination against Syrians with vicious gusto. The usual superficial condemnations from the US and international community aside, there will be scant outrage if Daraa becomes yet another of the atrocities carried out by Assad that litter Syria's recent history.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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